Monthly Archives: November 2010

Update post holiday hiatus

Despite my recent absence, things have been cooking along here at the farm.  In fact, I’m going to borrow from a friend and serve up this update list-style…

– Will finished converting the floating deck/hippie hut/tea house structure at the top of the hill into a run in shed for the sheep.  He only needs to attach the gate.  Of course, the sheep don’t actually sleep in it, and they even leave a look out when they go inside to eat grain, but we’re hoping they’ll get over this.

– Our Rouen drake (read: male) molted, and now he looks like a fat mallard, with his shiny green head and white collar.  A week ago he looked no different from the ladies.

– Thanksgiving No. 1 (our house, weekend before) went well.  I nailed the pecan pie, hit the pumpkin pie in terms of flavor but needed to bake it another 3 minutes to get a better custard setting.  Will rocked the world out of some stuffing.  Learning experience – turkey can be too fresh.  We picked our up less than 24 hours after slaughter and the bird was tough.  Turns out rigor mortis doesn’t “leave” the turkey for 24 hours (whereas chickens they say it’s gone in 4 hours but that you still shouldn’t eat them for 24 hours).  Who knew?

– Will pressed another 5 bushels of apples, so now we have a 5 gallon carboy to which he added hefeweizen yeast bubbling away in the basement, and  a 3 gallon and 1 gallon carboy sitting outside as an attempt at natural fermentation. 

– Thanksgiving No. 2 (in NJ) allowed us to break some locavore (have I ever mentioned how much I hate that term?  anyway…) rules by driving a turkey that’s local to our house another 300 miles away for dinner.  This bird was killed Monday and not eaten until Thursday and it was absolutely perfect, confirming for Will that he did not, in fact, totally f-up the last turkey.  As I was with out my kitchen aide, all pies were from Whole Foods, although Will did blow my family’s mind with some homemade gravy… what can I say, Jersey folk buy theirs in jar form.  Even the vegetarian who didn’t touch the bird slathered some on his mashed potatoes.  Mmm, gravy soaked mashed potatoes.

– The little brother and I made a camera trade, whereby he got a top of the line new point and click and I got his old SLR.  I totally made out on this deal, and owe the man a case of wine, but now you have him to thank for what may hopefully be some improved photography around these parts.

– Alston likes New Jersey, because in his mind it’s the land of giant leaf piles and lots of Italian looking people who dote on him endlessly and always bring gifts that make noise.

– Our first morning back from the North East Corridor, we lost a guinea hen.  Something ate its head and entrails, which I’ve read is typical of raccoons.   I’d be sad, but part of me is all “that’s what you get for insisting on sleeping on TOP of your enclosure instead of safely locked inside it.”

– We got out Christmas tree from Foxfire Farm just across the James River.  Great selection for a cut your own place.  I highly recommend it.

We usually get white pines, for the practicality that the needles are soft, the aesthetics that they diffuse the lights smashingly, and just for the sentimentality that my dad and I always used to pick out a white pine when we’d cut our tree.  Before Will and I were married, I insisted that we find a cut your own place, as that’s what I’d always done growing up – to the point that my father would wait until I came home from college to get a tree, even if that meant hunting through a field of rejects on December 23rd.  Of course, the year I said that, we spent the holidays with my parents only to find they’d bought a fake tree.  So now I’ve taken it upon myself to carry out the tradition.

This year we went a little crazy in terms of size.

And that’s about all the excitement around here.  How was your Thanksgiving?


320 bushels of apples

The general rule here on the farm is that Will announces plans to take on something new, say buy sheep.  I react by ordering a handful of books from Amazon, because that’s my idea of being prepared and because I know I probably can’t talk him out of it.  Said project occurs and only afterward does Will reference the small library of farm how-to’s we now own.

Last night, Will was flipping through The Backyard Orchardist when he muttered “oh crap.”  It turns out one mature apple tree produces about 20 bushels of fruit.  And we just ordered 16.

Friends and family can now rest assured that every Christmas we’ll attempt to unload our copious amounts of cider and apple butter on you in disguise as a gift.  Pretend to be grateful.

Starting our apple orchard

Good friends came down for the weekend to help Will dig the holes for our apple trees.  They’re headed to Argentina in January to be WWOOFers, so this was practice for them, free labor for us, and a good excuse to catch up.

After talking to the folks over at Vintage Virginia Apples, we ordered all 2 year old trees on M-111 rootstock of the following varieties:

Ashmead’s Kernel (2)
Albemarle Pippin
Arkansas Black
Black Twig
Gold Rush
Grimes Golden
Harrison (2)
Winesap (2)
Virginia (Hewes) Crab (2)
Roxbury Russet

Our main reason for wanting apples is to make cider.  The varieties we chose are mostly heirlooms, and while some will be highly astringent (like the crab apples), there are enough sweet ones to eat fresh, bake into pies and can as apple sauce and apple butter.

The trees should be ready to pick up in early December.  Yippee!

Turns out guineas can’t read

Now that the guineas are free to roam by day, they are getting more adventurous…

They ran everywhere today.  Up the driveway to the front yard.  Around the house to the back entrance and into the pasture.  You’d hear this weird, high-pitched squawk and then see these bald-headed birds dart about the ground in the line and stop in a huddle.  Guineas are so weird.

That being said, I think they actually enjoyed themselves today.

Adventures in Day Ranging

Our goal with all the poultry is to day range, whereby we let the birds do their bird thing, wandering around their section of the property during the safer daylight hours, free to forage for grass, eat grubs and bugs and other assorted natural goodies, poop all over the place and scratch it back into the ground as fertilizer, and generally act like birds instead of zoo captives.

The upsides are a plenty:
1. We think it’s more humane.  The chickens get to act like chickens, pecking and scratching.  The guineas have enough space to really fly around.  The ducks and geese can get their fill of pond-side greenery.

2. The birds get more variety in their diet beyond their grain-based feed, so their eggs are tastier for us (and have that tell-tale dark almost burnt orange yolk).  There’s also supposed to be some science saying that pasture-raised birds lay eggs higher in brain-building omega-3 fatty acids, but I’m too lazy to provide you with a link.

3. All this foraging means the birds eat less feed, which saves us money.  Also on the budget front, their homes don’t get dirty as quickly when they spend their days outside, so we don’t have to clean out their houses as often or pay to replace their hay as often.  Also, pasture-raised birds are said to get sick less often (as they aren’t just pecking around on ground they’ve all been pooping over), so hopefully we won’t lose any birds to disease.

4. My personal favorite, this place just feels more like a farm when there are chickens in the pasture, and ducks and geese wandering the front yard.

There are also downsides, the biggest one being day ranged birds are more vulnerable to predators (hence Scout).  The other biggie we’ve found this past week is that it’s kind of a pain in the ass to round up birds each evening, something that has not been aided by the Fall Back of daylight savings, meaning I don’t get home until past dusk so poor Will is left chasing guineas around their enclosure in the dark.

Here’s how it’s going so far:

Chickens: You guys rock.  Once the frost melts, Will opens up the hoop house and the ladies hop outside and start exploring.  We have a “yard” fenced for them a la electrified poultry netting since they are our most vulnerable birds (still relatively small and not so good in the flying department).  Some of the hens can still fit through the holes of the netting and slip outside into the wide wide world, but so far they keep coming back.  And, as long as Will waits until the sun starts to set before heading back to the hoop house, everyone puts themselves away, hanging out on the roost when the doors get closed for the night.  Easy!

Ducks and Geese: The ducks get locked up in their house at night, which doesn’t have food or water in it, so they are the very first chore every morning.  Once Will opens the doors and refills their water and food, he leaves the gate to their yard open and the geese and ducks eventually end up wandering our front lawn.  The geese look like they are duck shepherds, waddling tall as the quacks scurry about.  Sometimes the ducks and geese will put themselves back in their yard, but often it involves some chasing.  It still beats the days when we’d have to catch the ducks and toss them in their house (they put themselves into their house at night, finally!), but it’s not as easy as the chickens, or when we just kept everyone in the yard.

Guineas: These birds are a whole different ballgame.  As you may recall, we had a jail break when we first moved the guineas to their current enclosure in the lower yard, so we’ve been pretty gun-shy about letting these birds loose.  While flipping through a copy of Gardening with Guineas trying to determine how big a house we need to build them, Will read something about starting to day range your birds around six weeks.  Yeah, ours are eleven weeks old.  Opps.  So the next morning during chores, we head down to their enclosure and leave the door open, waiting for a mass exodus.  Within minutes, all 15 birds are perched on the bottom wooden strip of the doorway, careening their heads around, but not a single one would venture across the threshold.  Not one bird left that first day.

On the second day, the door was again left open, and by around 4 PM all the birds were outside the enclosure.  They explored for about a half hour and were back home.  Sweet!  The third day, not so much.  They left earlier in the morning and spent most of the day outside, popping back in during the late afternoon to snack on some feed.  They again headed outside, and outside they stayed.  At dusk, Will tried to herd them back, but that devolved into a twenty minute chase where the guineas would run along the railroad ties lining their enclosure, only to go wide just as they reached the side with the door, making it completely impossible for Will to chase them anywhere but back around again.  He gave up when all the birds took flight and proceeded to roost on top of their enclosure.  And that’s where they slept, with Will muttering all night something about what do I care if we don’t have any guineas left tomorrow.

Again, are you seeing why most farms don’t raise these birds?

Since that night we’ve had two nights where they made it back inside and one where they again opted for the penthouse.  So yes, day ranging in this case is decidedly more difficult for us.  Of course, the whole reason we have guineas is so they can eat bugs, so they won’t do us much good if we keep them locked up.  Assuming we have any left come spring.

Overall, I’d call day ranging a tentative success.

On the lookout

After much effort, we finally have a livestock guardian dog.

According to the rescue group, our Great Pyrenees is about a year old.  She was found wandering by the side of a road, completely emaciated, back in August.  She was being fostered at a small farm in North Carolina and nursed back to health.  We were warned that she’s a “digger” before we agreed to take her, but that was the only caveat mentioned.  Also, they were okay with us keeping her outside (she slept outside in a kennel on the farm in NC), unlike most of the dogs at the Virginia Rescue.  And let’s be honest, she’s not going to do us much good protecting the sheep and chickens if she’s snoozing on our couch.

Will drove the 3+ hour each way trip this past weekend to pick her up.  We decided to name her Scout (yes, just like To Kill a Mocking Bird).  He already adores her.  And I must say, she is a very sweet dog.  She doesn’t know basic commands like Sit, but she was fine on leash, and follows pretty closely as we walk around the pasture.

Right now she’s nursing a bit of a limp and two pretty bad hot spots, which the foster mom thought may have been caused by her and her kennel mate nipping at one another.  Otherwise, despite being a bit on the slim side, she seems ideal.  Beautiful coat, some black marking on the tips of her ears, the telltale extra duclaw typical of the breed, and a fabulously deep bark.  It’s more of a woof than a bark, really.  And yes, in classic Pyr fashion, she’s a bit indiscriminate about vocalizing.  Also, she is huge.  When she stands on her hind legs, she can rest her front paws on the top of the four-post fence, like she was a neighbor leaning over for a bit of good gossip.  Standing normally, her head is at my chest.  It feels a bit like we have an albino lion wandering the backyard.  Sounds like it, too.

So far so good.  Watson and her somewhat get along, but we don’t really keep them together much.  The first day, despite all his antagonism (Watty is an instigater), Scout only snapped back when he started to eat her food.  Otherwise, we leave her to the pasture while Watson roams the rest of the property.  Alston is fascinated by her, but isn’t such a fan of her sniffing.  She doesn’t lick him, but she does explore and prod with her nose, prompting a chorus of “all done, up ma” from the toddler.  But I must say, she is very gentle.

As for the sheep, well, this one is our fault.  The suggestion was to keep the sheep contained in a pen and then introduce them to Scout, having them “hang out” until everyone got used to one another.  The problem is, we don’t have a pen.  In fact, we don’t even have the run in shed (more on that in another post), as Will has the walls off while he paints everything.  Which means the sheep first met Scout when she ran up to them, prompting them to retreat into the woods and sneak out only to steal some grass for a snack.  As their water trough is in the middle of the field, I’m a bit worried none of them have had a drink of water since her arrival on Saturday.  At least the frost-covered pasture must be some source of hydration.  I think.  That being said, the shed should be finished this week, meaning next weekend is find-a-way-to-trap-the-sheep-inside-it-and-coax-the-dog-in-for-a-meet-and-greet time.

Meet the geese

A good friend of ours, who also happens to be the person who found us Samson and Delilah, gave us her breeding pair of Toulouse geese.  She’s had them for six years, but she thinks they would benefit from having a pond, and she has a ton of animals on her hands right now so we were happy to offer up our farm as a foster home.

Their names are Lautrec (male) and Manet (female), and right now they are shacking up in the duck enclosure (although they stay outside at night while the ducks get locked in their house).  The geese make the ducks look like sparrows.  So far, everyone is tolerating each other, which is to say that while no fights have broken out, either the ducks eat or the geese eat, there are no communal meals as of yet.

On the first day, the  geese took a swim… our secret reason for wanting geese was so they would teach the ducks to swim.  After about a minute, they both spooked and came crashing back to the enclosure.  We now think the lock ness monster’s lesser known cousin may be residing in our pond.

My biggest concern about getting full grown geese, was that they would already be imprinted to our friend and never bond with us.  And geese aren’t exactly known to be friendly animals.  So far, I haven’t been hissed at, nor do I feel like Alston is unsafe around them, which is a huge relief.

Here’s hoping they get it on so we can have a goose for Christmas dinner 2011.